With the NFL regular season over, the Kansas City Chiefs (+350), Buffalo Bills (+400), San Francisco 49ers (+500), Philadelphia Eagles (+550) and Cincinnati Bengals (+850) are the top choices at DraftKings to win the Super Bowl, though as we saw last year, favorites don’t always make it through the postseason gantlet. Green Bay and Kansas City had the shortest odds to win the Super Bowl at the start of last season’s playoffs, but neither made it to the Super Bowl. The top-seeded Packers didn’t even win a game.
There are many litmus tests to separate the Super Bowl contenders from the pretenders, but one of the more reliable methods focuses on teams that perform better than others in specific situations. The easiest way to measure this is through expected points added (EPA), which calculates how many points a team scores compared with an average team while running a play under the same circumstances — i.e. the same down, distance and field position. The higher the EPA, the more likely that team is to succeed.
Entering last season’s playoffs — and going back to 2002, when the NFL expanded to 32 franchises — the team ranked higher in expected points added per game at the end of the regular season won 61 percent of playoff games, with the biggest advantage occurring in the divisional round (.671). Teams that ranked in the top 10 for both offensive and defensive expected points added during the regular season won 76 percent of their playoff games and went 6-2 in the Super Bowl. Those that ranked in the top five in either offensive or defensive expected points added won 74 percent of their postseason matchups, although they posted a 3-5 record in the championship game. Those that qualified in neither of those categories were 18-64, reaching the Super Bowl four times and going 0-4.
There are outlier seasons, however. Last year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys ranked in the top 10 of both offensive and defensive EPA entering the playoffs, but none reached even the conference championship games. The Bucs, seeded second in the NFC, beat the Philadelphia Eagles in the first round before losing to the Los Angeles Rams in the second. The Bills, No. 3 in the AFC, clobbered the New England Patriots in the first round but lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in the second. And the Cowboys, the NFC’s No. 3 seed, lost at home to the 49ers in the first round. Neither of last year’s Super Bowl participants — the Rams and Bengals — ranked in the top 10 of both offensive and defensive EPA. Los Angeles was fifth and 11th; Cincinnati was 13th and 10th.
So the metric, while valuable, isn’t infallible. Still, using EPA, here are the top contenders to reach this year’s Super Bowl, grouped from most to least likely.
The prime candidates (top 10 in offensive and defensive EPA)
NFC No. 1 seed: Philadelphia Eagles
Fourth in offensive EPA, sixth in defensive EPA
Two of the Eagles’ three losses came without quarterback Jalen Hurts, but he’s back for the playoffs. Defensively, Philadelphia became the first team since the 1989 Minnesota Vikings to record at least 70 sacks and is the first team ever to have four players with at least 10.
NFC No. 2 seed: San Francisco 49ers
Fifth in offensive EPA, first in defensive EPA
Rookie Brock Purdy, the last player selected in the 2022 draft, became the first quarterback since at least 1950 to win his first five starts. San Francisco’s defense leads the NFL in points allowed per drive (1.48).
AFC No. 2 seed: Buffalo Bills
Second in offensive EPA, 10th in defensive EPA
The Bills ranked second behind the Chiefs in points per drive (2.66), and Buffalo’s defense ranked fourth at 1.68 points allowed per drive. Buffalo won seven straight to end the season, but only one of those victories came against a playoff team (and it was against the Miami Dolphins, who barely squeaked into the postseason).
AFC No. 3 seed: Cincinnati Bengals
Sixth in offensive EPA, ninth in defensive EPA
The Bengals started 4-4 but haven’t lost since Halloween. Cincinnati began the season with an offensive line that had been almost entirely revamped, and Joe Burrow was sacked 29 times in the first eight games. The second half of the season was a different story — Burrow was sacked just 12 times over the final nine games — but starting right tackle La’el Collins suffered a season-ending injury last month and starting right guard Alex Cappa probably will miss the playoff opener after injuring an ankle Sunday.
NFC No. 5 seed: Dallas Cowboys
Seventh in offensive EPA, third in defensive EPA
The Cowboys won six of eight to close the season and rank fifth in both points scored and allowed per drive, but their last four wins came against two awful teams (the Colts and Texans) and two teams missing their starting quarterback (the Eagles and Titans). Still, Dallas became the first team since Pittsburgh’s “Steel Curtain” teams of the 1970s to lead the NFL in takeaways in back-to-back seasons.
The next tier (top five in offensive or defensive EPA)
AFC No. 1 seed: Kansas City Chiefs
First in offensive EPA, 18th in defensive EPA
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes had 5,614 offensive yards (passing, rushing and receiving combined), breaking Drew Brees’s 2011 record (5,562 in one fewer game), and his 5,250 passing yards were the fourth most in NFL history. Kansas City went 6-2 against teams that made the playoffs, and the losses came by a combined seven points.
The next-next tier (top 10 in offensive or defensive EPA)
AFC No. 4 seed: Jacksonville Jaguars
10th in offensive EPA, 13th in defensive EPA
The Jaguars rebounded from a 3-7 start to make the playoffs, but they needed Josh Allen’s fourth-quarter fumble return for a touchdown against the Tennessee Titans on Saturday to secure the berth. Jacksonville has one of the worst pass defenses in the league, ranking 30th in pass-defense DVOA.
AFC No. 7 seed: Miami Dolphins
Ninth in offensive EPA, 23rd in defensive EPA
Miami’s chances probably hinge on whether quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is cleared to play after suffering his second diagnosed concussion of the season on Christmas. The defense is an issue, too: The Dolphins allowed 2.25 points per drive, the worst of any playoff team.
NFC No. 4 seed: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
22nd in offensive EPA, eighth in defensive EPA
The Bucs showed signs of life down the stretch, beating the Cardinals and Panthers to secure the NFC South title and a home playoff game. But the pass defense is awful (opposing quarterbacks have thrown 20 touchdown passes against only four interceptions vs. Tampa Bay since Week 6), and the running game is nonexistent (the Bucs rank last in the NFL in rushing EPA per play).
The rest of the field
History suggests the odds are stacked against these squads.
AFC No. 5 seed: Los Angeles Chargers
14th in offensive EPA, 26th in defensive EPA
AFC No. 6 seed: Baltimore Ravens
19th in offensive EPA, 14th in defensive EPA
NFC No. 3 seed: Minnesota Vikings
13th in offensive EPA, 21st in defensive EPA
NFC No. 6 seed: New York Giants
11th in offensive EPA, 28th in defensive EPA
NFC No. 7 seed: Seattle Seahawks
15th in offensive EPA, 25th in defensive EPA